At the start of 2012, when Roger Federer stated that he was intent on becoming world number one again, eyebrows were raised among tennis fans and the sport’s press pack.
Was this the voice of an ageing superstar who was desperate to claw back some authority with his words because his actions on court were failing to deliver the big prizes? After all his mammoth battles, in 14 years as a professional, was the Swiss star punch-drunk like a deluded boxer whose career was winding down to a sad and cheerless end? Was this the equivalent of a boxer’s trash talk? Was Federer still trying to insist that he could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee?
Or was it the talk of a man who knew his mind and his body? A man who knew what it took to climb to the sport’s highest peak? A tennis player who had won everything and knew he had the ability and appetite to win even more?
After all, he had already spent 285 weeks as world number one, so he knew what was required. After losing to Novak Djokovic in the semi-final of the US Open in September 2011, Federer took a break, opting out of the Asian hard court swing to work harder on his game. He came back better than ever. He won the World Tour Finals at London’s O2 Arena and titles in Basle, Paris, Rotterdam, Dubai, Indian Wells and Madrid. But the Grand Slam-obsessed media weren’t getting carried away. At this year’s Australian Open he lost in the semi-final to Rafael Nadal, his 10th defeat to the Spaniard in their last 13 meetings. At the French Open, Federer was outplayed, outfought and outclassed in the semi-final by Novak Djokovic, his sixth loss to the Serb in their last seven meetings. While Federer was still picking up titles, it seemed unlikely he would add to his tally of 16 Grand Slams. His last major title was at the 2010 Australian Open, but since then all the big prizes had gone to Nadal or Djokovic. Tennis was suddenly becoming a duopoly, predictable even.
Then came Wimbledon, a title Federer hadn’t won since 2009 and a competition that, in the past two years, he had exited at the quarter-final stages. After Nadal’s shock exit to Lukas Rosol in the second round, hopes were raised, but, after cruising into the semi-finals, he still had to overcome the defending champion Novak Djokovic. Every pundit predicted a Djokovic win. Federer hadn’t read the script. He destroyed the Serb in four sets and Andy Murray suffered the same fate in the final. A month shy of his 31st birthday Federer was back on his perch. He had reached his target of reclaiming the world number one title and, in doing so, ensured he would surpass Pete Sampras’ record for the number of weeks at world number one. The world of sport shook its head in disbelief but, more so, admiration. The victory didn’t just confirm his reputation as the greatest tennis player of all-time, it confirmed him as the greatest sportsman of all-time.
You could make cases for Jack Nicklaus, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Pele, Maradona, Don Bradman and several other names to be given that label, but Federer’s achievements go way beyond theirs. To have won so much and to have achieved such consistency in an individual sport that demands so much of the mind and body, week in, week out, is phenomenal. Tennis used to be a sport dominated by flair and finesse and players like Lever, McEnroe, Borg and Edberg prospered. Today, the skill levels are the same, but tennis is more physical than ever and the season lasts 11 months.
Federer is no brute, but he’s conquered a brutal sport. He has combined effortless grace with ruthless efficiency, power with precision and mental strength with stamina. Golfers don’t face the same physical demands, boxers don’t fight every week, Formula One drivers need a winning car and, while various team sports have seen some incredible individuals, they can achieve nothing without their team-mates. Tennis is a lonely sport. Roger Federer stands alone at its peak and atop the list of sport’s all-time greatest.